Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Note on the Cohen/Port Case and Freedom of Speech

Words are rarely inconsequential. Language resides in the very heart of human life and sociality and while it can be most helpful when used correctly, it can also be most noxious when not.

Many people who choose to live their lives in a reason- and civility-informed fashion tend to believe that cyburbia much like suburbia, subscribes to certain rules of engagement apply. Or at least it should for without rules how can we all function properly?

In cyber space much as it is the case in real life, some people will deviate from generally established rules of decorum and decency and, more often than not, end up hurting a lot of other people in the process. Freedom is not free of the rules and regulations appended on the fine print, folks. And thank goodness, it isn't. When O'Henry said: "give me liberty of give me death," I very much doubt he had a kind of freedom in mind that was utterly free of personal responsibility. What kinds of free people can we be without common respect for one another?

I've recently thought about the Liskula Cohen and Rosemary Port case. Port's abominable online behavior has served as a vexing appetite suppressor on at least two occasions.

For those of you who don't know of this case (which cannot really be possible as I saw it featured on international papers as well while I was traveling this summer), do a Google-search on it and you'll learn much. Maureen Dowd observes:
"It began eight months ago when Liskula Cohen, a 37-year-old model and Australian Vogue cover girl, was surprised to find herself winning a “Skankiest in NYC” award from an anonymous blogger. The online tormentor put up noxious commentary on Google’s, calling Cohen a “skank,” a “ho” and an “old hag” who “may have been hot 10 years ago.”

In a nutshell, the case involves an anonymous blogger who's now been revealed to be Rosemary Port and a model by the name of Liskula Cohen. Port started an anonymous website the sole mission of which apparently was to provide a hierarchy and ranking of the 'skankiest' people in New York. That's right. Skankiest. I'm not joking. Now, I'll be brutally honest here. I had no idea what the semantic and etymological nature of the word 'skank' was but thanks to the media coverage of this case I've learned much about it.

And, folks, 'skank' is not a good word. It's a vexing word. It vexes me, at least. There are so many great words that start with an 's' that one could use. So many. But Ms. Port was particularly fond of this one.

Now, I knew of Skank the Brazilian britpop band. But I can't say I'd ever had an opportunity to use 'skank' in a sentence. At least not the way Port was using it on her blog. Thank you, Mom and Dad, for teaching me that it's not OK to use bad language when talking to and about people without being prepared to face the consequences. I still remember the day I called my first-grade friend Aleksander 'stupid' on the playground. I still feel badly about it. And I called him 'stupid' in plain daylight. Aleksander heard me. I apologized and we continued being best friends. I was burdened with guilt for days, though. I remember thinking my bad behavior had caused rain in the summer and all sorts of other bad things. You've got to love guilt, though, right? It straightens you out and it purges so well. But as a seven-year-old I learned a valuable lesson. There are other ways to make a point when you feel you are being treated unjustly. You could take Aleksander aside and tell him that he shouldn't cheat when you're playing ball. But you shouldn't just call him 'stupid.' That won't solve anything.

What I find especially sickening about Ms. Port's behavior is that she still maintains that Google infringed upon her rights by revealing her true identity and that she has the right to express whatever she wants.
No, Ms Port.
Simply put, "No way!"
This is not quite how it works in Adult-landia, you know, the place where we have rules when we're on the playground? You see, when you defame somebody, you need to face the consequences. I know, it's odd that freedom isn't quite 'free' but it's how it is. Freedom is not free of consequences. It's not. You're close to 30 and if you haven't had an opportunity to find this out by now then I am sorry. Maybe all the current media attention will help elucidate this point for you.

Freedom, Ms. Port, comes with a lot of privileges but also a lot of duties and responsibilities. You can't just spew hate, anonymous hate, and then demand that the First Amendment come to your rescue when you encounter hard times.

I've never cared about anonymous comments. Granted, anonymity is a First Amendment right, among other things, but when should one have the right to stand up for one's good name when it is dragged through the mud in a cowardly fashion? I didn't know who Liskula Cohen was before this debacle but I can now say I'm on her team. This, to me, is one of those very rare instances in life where I see myself picking a team and sticking with it.

Anonymity when used to disperse malicious reports and damaging language is not only wrong. It is cruel. Are you hearing me, Rosemary Port? Spewing hate anonymously on the internet and in real life is cruel. Plain cruel.

I, Brikena Ribaj, of, am publicly pronouncing my opinion here. As a long-time blogger and supporter of Web 2.0, I am ashamed of your actions. I hope you learn to rectify your mistakes and behave with more respect vis-a-vis people and language in the future.

Drop your 15 million suit to Google for violating your First Amendment right. Drop it. Instead, find ways to be a productive member of society, detox your system from the hate you seem to have so much of, and move on. It is easier to live without hate. And better. So much better.

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Dana said...

Amen! I do not understand why so many people leave such horrible comments anonymously online. I read comments when I read certain articles and I feel sick to my stomach when I read some of the comments, For the most part, they're personal attacks on the author and that is plain unfair. If you have something to say to a public person, dear Anonymous, do so in broad daylight. Reveal your name. That way, both parties are on the same level. Criticism is great and it should be encouraged.
Defamation isn't and it shouldn't!

Sean said...

thank you!

Sra said...

We haven't gotten to slander and libel in my torts class yet, but looking the terms up in my law dictionary, I would think Port might wish to drop her First Amendment suit lest she be countersued for libel. Yes, there are limits to our right to free speech, and slander and libel are among them. But the law aside, there is something to be said for simply not gossiping about other people. Complaints where complaints are due is fine by me, but, common, a skankiest list? Did this woman ever make it out of junior high?

Sra said...

Oh, that "common" was supposed to be "come on". Close enough.

Janice said...

Right. It's what I thought too. How can a 29-year-old be so childish? I mean not even in High School does one personally encounter such behavior.
Very, very bizarre.
And sad.

Anonymous said...

What made me sick to my stomach about this story is that I wasn't as stunned about its content as I thought I would be. I don't like having an immune system to such craziness but I suppose that's another sign of the kind of culture we're a part of.
I second the other reactions. I mean, how is it possible that a 30-year-old woman would be so infantile and mean?
What's funny/bizarre is that she doesn't seem to be too embarrassed by this. She's mad at Google for revealing her identity? Please. She should start direct that emotion to herself and change for the better or graduate high school. Whichever comes first!

Anonymous said...

I also find it annoying that those who break the rules of good behavior are the first to scream, 'constitution, first amendment, my lawyer, my lawyer.'
I very much doubt that Jefferson, Adams and co had this kind of freedom in mind when drafting the constitution.
And I would also very much hope that as a collective we would learn how to stop giving attention to bad behavior.
There is such a thing as bad press. And the embarrassment behind it should be enough to teach people how to behave and shape up.

JJ said...

Yes, very much 'yes' to this:
"Words are rarely inconsequential. Language resides in the very heart of human life and sociality and while it can be most helpful when used correctly, it can also be most noxious when not."

Liam said...

not well educated in US law regarding such an incident, my first instinct is to side with the anonymous blogger. how is her blog any different from a late-night talk show monologue or saturday night live? it's not a stretch to consider a model a public figure like other entertainers.

there's also the dilemma of government interference in the development of the free speech zone known as the internet. google is not distributed by a federal entity like the postal service.

Becca said...

I've been thinking a lot about freedom and the right to express one's self. I get a kick out of people who insist that they have the freedom to say what they want. Come on, now. Who actually says what's on their mind? Yeah, ok, a lot of what's on one's mind mind come out but not all the time and most certainly not on all the topics. Adults screen, ok? That's what makes us adults. We screen. We edit. This Port character sounds like she's got Tourette's or something. The writing kind. I also see the point that Google interfered by revealing her identity. On the other hand, if they get sued by the harmed party, it kind of makes sense that they would want to shift the blame where the blame rests. I mean, you can't really sue anonymity, can you? I am not a lawyer but what common sense is telling me is that when you mess up, you pay for it, or at least you clean the mess up. Maybe Port will end up meeting with Al Sharpton? :)

Carrie said...

The thing is, generally speaking, people don't like being talked about in a negative way. Words are not just words. They carry much weight with them. And they hurt not only a person's feelings but their livelihood as well.
I am still not sure I can understand how a woman that old could act so childishly.
This, in and of itself, is disturbing.

Sra said...

Something that is required in order to defend against libel or slander is truth. Basically, you can say whatever you want about someone, as long as it is true. For libel (defamatory statements in written form, as opposed to those in oral form, which are slander), truth is only a defense if the statement was made for the benefit of the public. Really, I don't think there's an argument that calling someone a skank is for the public's benefit, like we all might be missing something important if we didn't know (even if it were true [and how would you prove THAT?]).

B.R. said...

Thanks, Sra. Mose helpful semantic distinction there. What grabbed my attention re: this case was, what I tend to refer to as, the infantilization of language. Only, there's an element of detached cruelty to this that stirred the pot, we it were.
Right, it would be rather difficult to probe that Cohen is what the odd blogger says she is.
Another reason why this sort of story is perturbing to me is that it's informed by the trivial and fueled by the insane. So much else of substance gets eclipsed as a result of such craziness.

B.R. said...

Also, I do think that regulating or learning to deal with the confines that exist between the private and public domains is one of modernity's biggest challenged. So much needs to be defined for the first time. Even though to some of us it might seem like the internet has been around since the beginning of time, it is still very much a virginal notion. Much needs to be studies, examined, and eventually defines with regards to what constitutes certain legalities.
Naturally, I'm writing as a non-lawyer.

Sra said...

As am I, but I fully concur. The new legal frontiers proposed by the internet are part of what motivated me to go to law school in the first place. This is very important stuff.